African Nations' Cup: Mali set sights on unlikely triumph

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The Independent Football

The African Nations' Cup hosts Mali, who failed to get past the preliminary round of the 2002 World Cup qualifiers 18 months ago, believe they could be crowned champions at the end of this week.

Mali have been riding a tidal wave of passionate support at the Nations' Cup finals and play Cameroon in the semi-finals here tomorrow. Their 2-0 win over the World Cup finalists South Africa in Sunday's quarter-final in Kayès has sparked a massive surge of expectation, despite the country's lowly ranking of 108 in the latest Fifa standings.

"The team has been getting better with each game," said Mali's Polish coach Henryk Kasperczak. "They are a young side who are still learning but the self belief and experience is growing each day."

Mali looked to be in crisis just four months ago when their Italian coach Romano Matte was fired after a series of uninspiring results, culminating in a 6-0 defeat to the French club Gueugnon while on a short tour of Europe.

Matte was replaced by the former Polish World Cup defender Kasperczak but the team continued to struggle, finishing only third at the regional Amilcar Cabral Cup, which they hosted in November as a dress rehearsal for the Nations' Cup finals.

In December, they suffered a crushing 3-0 defeat to the Ivory Coast in a warm-up friendly at home in Sikasso and few gave them any chance of getting past the first round of the Nations' Cup when it kicked off on 19 January.

In fact, Mali only equalised three minutes from time to avoid defeat in their opening match against Liberia, whom they ultimately pipped for a place in the quarter-finals. But a draw with heavily-fancied Nigeria, followed by a convincing win over Algeria, has changed their fortunes and put the team within one match of a place in the final.

"We have played some really good football in this tournament and shown a lot of confidence," said Kasperczak, who took an equally unheralded Tunisian side to the 1996 Nations' Cup final in South Africa. The Dutch-based midfielder Mahamadou Diarra has emerged as one of the heroes of this tournament, along with team-mates Seydou Keita and Bassala Touré, who scored a stunning individual effort against the South Africans in Sunday's quarter-final.

Touré is the only surviving member of Mali's last Nations' Cup finals appearance in 1994 when they also surprisingly reached the semi-finals.

Public support has been a major contributing factor to Mali's success, with all their matches watched by capacity crowds. Huge crowds surged on to the streets of Bamako to celebrate the win over Algeria and Sunday's win over South Africa.

When the Mali team returned here hours after Sunday's quarter-final win, police roadblocks were set up to stop fans from crowding the capital's airport to welcome home their heroes after the short flight from Kayès.

"For most people, this is the biggest thing to have happened in their lives," said a local organising committee official, Mohamed Cissé.